How did Ben Elton's "The Wright Way" get it so wrong?

The old comedy adage says that if there's nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Perhaps this explains why <em>The Wright Way</em> is just one big knob gag, then.

Ben Elton’s new sitcom, The Wright Way, was likely doomed from the moment the first scathing review went online. Coming from a widely-disliked figure like Elton - the turncoat, the sell-out - its reputation preceded it, other critics bundled on, and pretty soon everybody knew for certain that it was going to be a stinker. (At the time of writing, Wikipedia lists its genre as “Anti-comedy”.) The Twitter LOL-vultures circled.

As fun as the Twitter competition for the most cutting put-down was, there’s also reason to be slightly wary of this feedback loop of mass instant criticism. While online word-of-mouth can propel slow-burn, boxset-ready series to hit status, the real-time rush-to-judgement also has the potential to condemn shows before they’ve had a chance to find their feet.

Sitcoms are especially vulnerable to this; they’re notoriously hard to get right straight away. Test audiences hated the first episode of Friends; Men Behaving Badly had to lose its star and move to a different broadcaster before audiences embraced it; Blackadder didn’t reach its comic potential until they brought in a bold young talent called Ben something-or-other to shake up the second series. Quite simply, it’s a flat-out foolhardy and ignorant act to pass judgement on a sitcom’s true worth just a few episodes in.

Unless it’s The Wright Way, of course, because it’s utter, utter crap.

The second episode landed with a sickly thud on our televisions last night, and might have - somehow – managed to be worse than the first episode. A shockingly lazy calamity of a show, its many, many superficial failures serve only as a light and fluffy distraction from the vast, gaping flaws at its core. (The central character, David Haig’s health and safety officer Gerald Wright, is a crudely Frankensteined composite of Victor Meldrew and Gordon Brittas, who splits his time evenly between furiously railing against the petty annoyances of modern life and taking great pleasure in causing the petty annoyances of modern life. This is because Ben Elton only had so many jokes to go round and nobody could be bothered to tell him that it made absolutely no sense.)

Two episodes in, we can now start to sense the shape of the show’s broader trends. For example, some of the characters have catchphrases! David Haig’s catchphrase is “don’t get me started”. His daughter’s lesbian lover’s catchphrase is “this is such a YouTube moment” (because that is totes what all the young people say). Mina Anwar’s catchphrase is shouting.

If something wasn’t funny once, try repeating it. An entire section of dialogue about chest waxing is replicated, beat for beat, in both episodes. A plot about Wright’s ex-wife coming over for tea somehow takes two episodes to set up (possibly this counts as a “story arc”?) A character says the title of the show. Twice.

In what is clearly intended to be the series’ signature comic riff, each episode features a scene in which Wright constructs a series of tortuous acronyms on a whiteboard, unwittingly spelling out a rude phrase. These phrases, it turns out, also handily serve as the show’s epitaph:

As these demonstrate, above all else, the show hews tightly to the comic rule that if there’s nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Penis. Penis. Words that mean penis. Things that look like penises. Penis. At one point a character talks about vaginas, just to keep the audience guessing. Then back to penis. Penis. Penis acronyms. Actions that look like a character is using his penis. Penis.

Now: David Haig is a fine comic actor, and both he and his groin are veterans of many classically bawdy British comedies. His is a grizzled, old-timey groin that’s been the punchline to many a set-up, the prat of many falls, the penis ex machina that plugged a hundred plot holes. Like Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner, this groin has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. And yet, there was a moment last night, as Haig’s battle-hardened, farce-calloused groin wearily humped a dustbin for the second time that episode, when - if you were watching in HD, perhaps - you could just about see his groin embracing the inevitability of death.

This sense of resignation in the face of doom pervades the whole shooting match. Elton could perhaps be forgiven for having lost his hunger, living as he does in a giant fort made of money and Queen CDs. But everywhere you look there are signs that nobody involved in the show gave much of a toss. Characters drinking out of mugs that are obviously empty. Haig spending most of a scene sitting at table where his face isn’t properly lit. Camera placements that can’t quite remember who was supposed to be in shot. And a dead-eyed cast, mechanically mugging their way through the script in the hope that if they just do everything loudly enough, their agents might return their children unharmed.

(My personal favourite is Beattie Edmonson’s increasingly desperate expressions while hanging around in the back of shots, trying to find something plausible to do with her face as she waits for her next line to stagger into view. Seriously, try re-watching it with the sound off, just focusing on her. It’s such a YouTube moment.)

So, bad show is bad. What of it? The problem here is not so much that somebody made a lousy TV show, it’s what they didn’t make instead. TV commissions are a zero-sum game - there are only so many pilots that can be ordered, only so many series made. And there are too many young writers desperate for a chance to try things out, to learn and fail and get better, for the BBC to be easily forgiven for shovelling time and money towards complacent, will-that-do dross like The Wright Way.

There’s no formula to comedy. Any commissioning policy worth a damn will produce as many failures as successes. But at least fail by trying.

This is why the Twitter hate-watchalong, entertaining as it was, was doomed to run out of steam long before episode two was halfway through. The Wright Way is not so bad it’s good, it’s so bad it’s simply exhausting. How can you work up the energy to mock something for missing the target when nobody involved seems to have cared enough to even aim for it? The sheer number of ungiven fucks have a profoundly enervating, soul-sapping quality. It’s like J K Rowling’s Dementors, sucking all the joy from a room. There’s just nothing funny left to say.

Penis.

 

The cast of Ben Elton's "The Wright Way", making serious faces while wearing hard hats. Photograph: BBC
MURRAY CLOSE/GETTY IMAGES
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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era